Twitter, the short-form messaging service beloved by many for its brevity, may not be so brief anymore: According to a report in Re/code, the company is building a new product that will allow tweets longer than 140 characters.
We don’t know when this new product is coming, or even if it will arrive for sure; social networks often prototype and beta-test features that don’t ever make it to consumers. Still, it raises an intriguing question: Why were tweets ever limited to 140 characters?
Interestingly, this has to do with a piece of early Twitter lore that most contemporary users forget: When the service was first launched in 2006, it was intended almost entirely as a text messaging service. You posted to Twitter by SMS; when your friends tweeted, you saw their updates by text. (Nick Bilton’s “Hatching Twitter” includes a funny exchange in which Twitter’s founders debate the possibility of posting updates by phone instead; they eventually decide that it would be hard to place a call from a club, for instance.)
At the time, texting was actually kind of revolutionary: It didn’t get big in the U.S. until 2005. Texts also operated under pretty strict length limits: If they went over 160 characters, they’d be split into multiple messages.
“In order to minimize the hassle and thinking around receiving a message, we wanted to make sure that we were not splitting any messages,” Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey told the L.A. Times in 2009. “So we took 20 characters for the user name, and left 140 for the content. That’s where it all came from.”
Where did the 160-character limit come from? That’s an even older story: It was picked, more or less arbitrarily, in 1985 by Friedhelm Hillebrand, an executive at the the industry group Global System for Mobile Communications. Hillebrand and his colleagues were developing standards for the emerging text-message technology, and they needed to set a limit that both accommodated the tight bandwidth constraints of ‘80s wireless networks and still allowed people to converse.
So he looked at some of the short-form messages available at the time: postcards and Telex transmissions (basically: a latter-day telegraph). After this slightly less-than-scientific process, the GSM concluded that 160 characters would do for texts.
Somehow, Twitter’s stuck with that precedent — 30 years after.
Given the enormous ways that communications technology has changed in that time (including the invention and evolution of Twitter itself), it makes sense that the network is reexamining the 140-character limit. Twitter’s already dropped such limits from private messages; it has also introduced a change to the retweet feature, which gives users more space to comment on the tweets they share.
Still, there’s something to be said for that limit, which has fundamentally differentiated Twitter from its peers; it’s made the platform invaluable for news and other sorts of fast-twitch updates, and it’s prompted some creative innovations — think an entire universe of Twitter-specific slang, or the rise of the serialized Twitter essay.
Will this mysterious, alleged new product reverse all that? Only time will tell. But the strange, circuitous evolution of the 140-character limit suggests that all such things are mutable.
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